The Feast of Saint John Baptist
From this man’s descendants God, according to His promise,
has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
John heralded His coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance
to all the people of Israel;
The Gospel is good news, the story God’s favor in sending His Son to teach, to offer Himself, to rise triumphant over death and to send His Spirit. And always and everywhere that greatest story has a preface through which one enters it, and that preface is repentance, looking at one’s life in the light of God’s justice and love and saying, with conviction and perhaps with tears, “Sorry; sorry that I have despised your grace and kindness and chosen not to please you but to please myself.”
John the Baptist came to baptize not with the Holy Spirit and with fire, but to call the world to the sorrow of repentance (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16). He did not begin as would the Lord with the gentle words of Isaiah, with comfort for captives and prisoners (Luke 4:16–19), but with arrows shot to the heart of a rebellious race. To the most religious, those who had no need of forgiveness, he said, “You brood of vipers, bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:7). And John’s baptism prophesied but did not offer the regeneration, the rebirth, of the heart by water and the Spirit (John 3:5). That gift awaited Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and with His coming the power of the sacraments through water and the Spirit to make new hearts.
John’s preaching established the pattern of Christian life, which always begins with repentance, with saying “Sorry.” Thus the public worship of the Church begins with the words “I confess,” and thus begins the confession of serous sins which can only be forgiven by the power of the keys. The tawdry sins of lust and greed are more obviously causes of sorrow, but beneath these and more fundamental, is the proposition “I was right” and its near relation “I was good enough” testimonies to the hard kernel of pride. Our tendency to know better than God can be traced to our first parents, from whom we have inherited bad blood. In fact to be human is to be wrong when we stand before God, because then the question is not who is right but who is God, who is a creature, who is the omnipotent, omniscient creator, and who is a beloved handful of dust.
Augustine, among others, was fond of pointing out that there was sweetness in sorrow, and here he is seconding the first two of those mysterious sayings of Jesus called the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in Spirit, that is the humble, and blessed are the sorrowful (Matthew 5:3–4). These two great blessednesses reinforce one another. Humility is the virtue that tells the truth about oneself, about just where each of us belongs in the vast arrangement of things, which, we are reminded, is, happily, in the lowest place. Sorrow, sweet sorrow, which is quite a different thing from regret, is a blessing that comes upon any soul as experience of the world yields its harvest of sins and sorrows. Nobody over thirty looks back over his or her life and says, yes, I have done very well, even perfectly.
Repentance means the laying down at the foot of the cross the burden of having been right The New Testament word for repentance means changing one’s mind, making it over anew with a desire to please God. One of the greatest fracases in the history of the Church was occasioned by the decision, made in the early third century, that even sins, serious sins, mortal sins, committed after baptism might be forgiven. But such forgiveness comes at a price. Not only must there be repentance but also the firm intention not to sin again. History shows that we may sin again but being sorry cannot contain a small nugget of reserve that plans to do so. And much of the cleansing power of forgiveness depends upon the cleansing power of sorrow, without which there is no forgiveness. A great pastor of souls who knew me well would always say, “Be sorry for all your sins.” But if we can be sorry, we can always rise and return to our Father, who ever welcomes the prodigal.
Knowing ourselves as people who are not right has the liberating power that gentles the world, because if we can see ourselves as forgiven sinners, we can by grace see those among whom we live as persons often engaged in the battle against the demon of rightness whose name is self-righteousness. Because we have been forgiven, we can forgive. The bad effects of the disease of rightness, pride compounded by self-willed ignorance, darkens the world. The ‘news’ is a concatenation of complaint that our opponents are not right; when a word is uttered it is the occasion of challenge because it is not quite right. There has been in the past a regime of sympathetic interpretation, fed remotely by some Christian root, but now that root withers. Where malice is assumed, error is presupposed, so that the purpose of public rhetoric is to prove the opponent not right, and to do so not with an eye to his or her correction but to accomplish the opponents’ destruction.
In a world in which no one is right before God as the world understands ‘rightness,’ it is wisdom to see that every person wants to achieve the good they see, even if that good is so suffused with self-interest, so committed to doubtful presuppositions, as in fact to be harmful and to deserve in the long run stiff opposition. The desire to be right is a good thing—animals are not troubled with it―but in a fallen world our rightness is too often found not in humbled submission to God’s rightness but in stubborn advocacy of our own. When in Mark 10:18 Jesus said that no one but God is good, He was not under-writing ethical or intellectual despair, but making clear the fact that there is only one standard, to which in this world our access is imperfect and episodic.
Warfare always issues in violence; it may begin in deafness, in a willed inability to hear what the other says and sees. Only the possessed and the pathological—perhaps often the same thing—desire evil; everyone else, each of us in our own way, just wants to be right. And this means that in the world as it is everyone deserves a hearing and a place in the conversation in which they can live through, and perhaps survive spiritually, their own rightness. One corrective is the willingness of Christians to reflect on what we truly deserve. We enter the world each day knowing that we are the objects of unmerited and unaccountable grace, and that since we have not gotten what we deserve, God having graciously ignored our claims to rightness and given us something better, we can be gentle with the world. The sweetness of our sorrow makes room, or should make room, in our hearts for all those others who may still be right.
A. M. G. D.